OPINION: R&B singer/songwriter Ro James discusses consensual sex on his song “Permission.” It’s a commendable effort, but is it enough?
Props to Ro James for bringing up the topic of consent, which is often the elephant in the room. In his song “Permission,” James takes serious steps towards defining and narrating consensual sex.
Talking about misogyny in music would be exhaustive and impossible in a short space. This is not a commentary on the genre in general, but a close look at the song by Ro James and what it might mean for his listeners.
Rape isn’t suffered exclusively by women, but because James directs his lyrics at a “girl” I’m using a hypothetical woman as our reference.
I’ve been a Ro James fan for a while. I was personally disappointed after giving this song a closer look. In “Permission,” James’ speaker offers the woman some choice in this narrative with the lines “But only if it feels right” as well as “Give me the green light” and “With your permission.”
First of all, while we’re on the topic, James hasn’t invented the wheel.
“Give me the green light” is word for word the same lyrics used in John Legend’s song on the Grammy-nominated Evolver. Legend’s “Green Light” song is easily interpreted as being about sex, but James suggests consent in a way that Legend doesn’t.
James invites us to believe the speaker has done his due diligence by asking, which is a huge step in the right direction. But asking for consent doesn’t mean that he’s honored it. By the sixth verse, his lyrics have done a total 180:
"“Don’t you say no / Baby I can’t stop, won’t stop / Until you say so.”"
These lines suggest that the speaker, who was initially overzealous in fostering a consensual environment, is now borderline threatening the woman. What happened here?
As interpreted, these lyrics toe the line between true allyship and pseudo-allyship. The speaker vacillates between advocating for the woman’s agency (“Only if it feels right”) and pressuring her into saying yes (“Don’t you say no”).
The speaker, who was initially overzealous in fostering a consensual environment, is now borderline threatening the woman. What happened?
So which is it? Do you want women to feel in control of their situation or not?
Consent means the yes, the whole yes and nothing but the yes. Courts have defined consent as not just a one-time verbal agreement but an ongoing contract; a yes at eight p.m. doesn’t override a no at 11 p.m.
Commanding someone to say yes is oxymoronic. It’s like asking, “Would you like a peach?” and when someone answers, “No thank you,” you respond, “Eat the peach.” (Subtext: the question isn’t a question.)
Even if they say yes, however, is that consent? The answer: emphatically no. Just as you can’t give consent while intoxicated, you can’t agree with a gun to your head.
The irony of “give me the green light” is that the speaker isn’t waiting for the green light. As we learn later in the song, they’re waiting for a red one.
We can’t say for sure what Ro James’ intention was with the lyrics. Maybe the last two verses aren’t directed at the woman. Maybe he’s talking to himself, hoping the woman doesn’t say no to his advances.
He explains the song in this interview; he discusses the lyrics around the nine-minute mark.
"“Permission was about consent. It’s about respect. It’s about — what’s up, I don’t have to be all thirsty. We don’t have to be weirdos. I don’t have to be a guy.“"
It’s natural, of course, to yearn for someone to say yes. If that’s all his song aims for, then fair. But it’s all too easy to interpret these last two verses as a reversal of allowing someone to choose.
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But why is it even up for debate? There are certainly bigger battles to fight. Shouldn’t we just applaud James and Legend for showing that they care about consent and call it a day?
We could, but with at least one-fifth of women experiencing rape or attempted rape (80 percent of which are by a known assailant), it’s clear that we’re still not getting the message.
Furthermore, ill-gotten consent is a poor message to send. For a song that reached 37 on the U.S. R&B charts, we should care that “Permission” is reaching a lot of ears. Artists of Legend’s and James’ caliber should be leading the way as opposed to obscuring it.
We still have a lot to unpack, however, with overtly misogynistic lyrics that don’t even get close to acknowledging a woman’s rights in the bedroom.
The trouble with Ro James’ message in “Permission” is that it paints an incorrect picture of consent. This is a mistake we can’t afford to have our heroes make. If we’re going to talk about it, let’s do it right.